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Opinion

John Bird: After the election we must make poverty prevention a reality

With a new government in place, it's vital there's an alliance across parliament – and across the country – to prevent poverty

Big Issue founder John Bird

The retired though still campaigning professor, the prevention campaigner, myself and Oliver sat in the large café in the most exquisite museum in London. Entering it and looking at the collection of paintings is like going back to the days before the French Revolution. Each time I go I am astonished how rich it is in creating an image of a time and not just of a lot of old paintings, armour and furniture. It’s like a bit of time-travelling without the dry ice and Daleks; the theatrics.

The café of the Wallace Collection is large and impressive. It was in this café, now an atrium but formerly a garden, in this space so to speak, that I told my young wife that my mother was dying of cancer. Earlier in the day I had gone to the hospital and been told by the doctor. So every time I go to the café I am reminded of that day when I sat on a bench and told my wife of a few months the bad news.

There might have been some impatience or irritability towards me as I espoused the reasons why I was in the House of Lords, coming from the professor and the prevention campaigner. That I was there to dismantle poverty and not get involved in the long, arduous and seemingly fruitless job of trying to make the poor as comfortable as possible. They sat and nodded and suggested that they had heard it all before. And that most people espouse a desire to get rid of poverty. And so many people talked about prevention of poverty that it was not always possible to believe that it was more than lip service to a problem.

As if poverty only needed a rebranding, or a new smart set of determined thinkers

I did my best to say I was trying, as I have said repeatedly, to prevent “little three-year-old Johnny who lives in a troubled family becoming a Big Issue vendor or socially isolated person in 20 years”. And that most of the work of parliament, including government, was to keep a system of little attempts at this, that and the other going.

And everyone got excited, like government minsters seem to do, with a new initiative, a new plan, a new project. But that the struggle to prevent was mentioned but never engaged in.

As if poverty only needed a rebranding, or a new smart set of determined thinkers to rid us once and for all from poverty.

I could understand the campaigner’s trepidation, sitting opposite me with Oliver who works with me in parliament. And who was trying to get the message that we need to put prevention at the centre of the general election.

“You would have to reinvent the economy,” said the campaigner. “You would have to tie it in with the environment and with climate change and all those wider issues. Poverty is not just an issue in itself. It can’t be solved in isolation.”

I paraphrase.

How times have changed. In 1961, as a 15-year-old boy wandering the West End and Oxford Street area, I had first discovered the Wallace Collection. When I boldly went in, feeling no social inferiority which often put off workers and their children from entering such ‘posh’ places, I was immediately stopped by the keeper. The keeper, who came from my social class and was probably a retired regular soldier, asked me tersely what I was doing. I said that I was entering the museum. He looked at me, a rough sleeper trying and hopefully succeeding in looking tidy and clean, with disdain. And that was what his job was for. To put off people who might be some trouble.

He proceeded to tell me that there were public toilets up the road in a local park. I assured him I had come to indulge myself in my love of art of the old days. And not to take a leak or a dump courtesy of the publicly funded art collection.

We still tinker with poverty. We still keep dealing with the effects and not the causes.

There are keepers still at public collections. But they would never be allowed to get away with that dismissive manner. And if they do exist, these throwbacks, they should be exposed. It’s difficult now when so many well-heeled people dress like rough sleepers for reasons of style. When ripped denim seems the height of style, it’s difficult to tell who is on the way up or who is already down.

So much, though, has not changed in those 56 years since I discovered the Wallace Collection. We still tinker with poverty. We still spend the vast amount of public investment in emergency. We still keep dealing with the effects and not the causes.

We still need more and more doctors and more and more medical intervention because we do not spend our educational and social pound in educating people into their own good health. We don’t yet have a ‘National Self-Health Service’, which was implied in the creation of the welfare state.

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Oliver and I talked about putting a Poverty Prevention Alliance together, across party, across parliament, across the country. We left soon after.

I was glad to have met two new allies in the fight to prevent poverty. And I can understand a certain questioning of what I was saying about poverty and prevention because so many people have said this kind of stuff before.

But this general election should be about delivery, not just promises. And so must I.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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